We’ve all heard this story before: Some new performance car launches with so much drooling internet frenzy that people are booting up the configurator in Incognito Mode, but when that new car hits showrooms and dealers tack on five-figure markups or stupid garbage like dentless paint removal and chrome floor mats, the hype train derails faster than a CNN anchor on New Year’s Eve. We want to know if you can get a dealer to sell you a 2023 Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition at MSRP, and if you can – is it worth it? To find out, I borrowed one for a week of seriously mixed weather.
With mother nature leaving no stone unturned, I took this GR Corolla through snow, ice, fog, rain, thaw, the occasional bit of sun, and even turn five of the Toronto Indy street circuit. After all, someone has to do it, right?
[Full disclosure: Toyota Canada lent us this GR Corolla Circuit Edition for a week so long as we returned it with a full tank of premium fuel, kept the shiny side up, shot it, and reviewed it. As is customary, fuel was paid for by yours truly.]
Right off the rip, the GR Corolla looks like it’s trying to squeeze into a youth large T-shirt despite being 25 and hitting the gym five times a week. This thing’s 2.4 inches wider than a standard Corolla hatchback, and that’s all fender, baby. More than that, there’s a fantastically cartoonish sharpness to the cosmetic additions, like the stylists’ only instruments were chainsaws and machetes. I’m not just talking about the angular cut of the rear overfenders — check out those functional slots between the headlights and badge. The end result is a Corolla going Super Saiyan, giving three middle fingers at the same time to any notion of subtlety. It’s almost comical that this one’s specced in grey, because that’s like Randy Savage donning an Armani suit in an attempt at stealthiness.
If you want to immediately distinguish a 2023 Circuit Edition from the more common Core trim, just look at the hood and the roof. Not only do functional louvers constantly remind you that this thing brings the ruckus, a forged carbon composite roof adds eye candy and one seriously practical benefit. Because this plastic’s less thermally conductive than steel, if the temperature’s not far below freezing, snow doesn’t seem to stick aggressively to the GR Corolla Circuit Edition’s roof. The Circuit Edition also adds a black spoiler to the hatch, although keen shoppers can spec that as a dealer-installed accessory on the basic GR Corolla, so sighting one won’t guarantee you’ve seen a Circuit Edition.
Sport compacts can be tricky to polish, as they really are cases of stuffing five figures of go-fast bits in economy cars. For every one that’s well-appointed, there’s another that feels like a fast shitbox. In the art of transformation, touch points matter greatly, so Toyota’s changed every single one of them that has to do with driving. The sports steering wheel is shared with the GR Yaris, a posh-feeling three-spoke piece with thumb bolsters that are actually dialed back from the ones you get in the standard Corolla. Likewise, the sports seats are fantastic high-back units with excellent back support and bolsters that strike a likeble balance between roomy and restraining. This Circuit Edition trim of this manual-only hot hatch gets a special signed shift knob from the one-and-done stripped-out Morizo Edition, but all GR Corollas get a mechanical handbrake as opposed to the regular Corolla’s electronic affair. By the way, yanking that handbrake lever in motion kills torque to the rear diff, but only use that function in a responsible manner, mmkay?
The other unique thing inside the Toyota GR Corolla is the center console. Between the handbrake, the shifter, and an all-wheel-drive knob the size of a Beyblade, the standard Corolla console simply wouldn’t do the trick. However, this new console somewhat intrudes on rear center seat legroom, so ensure that whichever passenger draws the short straw is short themselves. Speaking of impracticality, due to the battery’s location in the trunk, usable space back there is pretty tiny. Sure, it’s good enough for a week of shopping, but make sure you can fit the pram in there if you’re looking at one of these as a family car.
Go beyond the immediate touchpoints, and this is still unmistakably a Corolla when it comes to luxury. Although well-appointed with a heated steering wheel and heated seats, the eight-speaker JBL stereo is so-so, and while the touchscreen infotainment system is leagues better than in Toyotas of old, it crashed several times on me during my week of testing. That’s mildly annoying, but it’s more than made up for by what lies beneath the GR Corolla’s swollen body.
The Heart Of The Matter
Under the hood sits a 1.6-liter three-cylinder engine, which, according to math, doesn’t have as much displacement or as many cylinders as the two-liter four-cylinder engine in the standard Corolla hatchback. However, it’s been turbocharged to the moon and back, or as far as Toyota dared while still offering a warranty. The grand result? 100 horsepower per cylinder, which is impressive, and one exhaust tip per cylinder, which is hysterical. However, this 300-horsepower lump might just be the least interesting part of the car, partly because there’s so much more on offer here than just an engine and partly because the mill’s maximum potential could be expensive to truly exploit.
Sure, Toyota quotes a zero-to-60 mph time of 4.99 seconds, but in practice, nobody actually goes from zero-to-60 the same way professional test drivers do. Getting the best time out of an all-wheel-drive car usually requires a driver to build boost by repeatedly stomping on the throttle, then perform a hideously abusive launch that’s the mechanical equivalent of playing Russian roulette with five in the cylinder. Needless to say, this is more fun when you aren’t footing the bill for drivetrain components.
In the real world, the Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition is still a reasonably quick car, but acceleration from a roll isn’t at the head of the class, even when it’s on boost. For a minute, I thought something was wrong with my test car, until I looked at some numbers that put everything in perspective. In Car And Driver instrumented five-to-60 mph rolling start testing, a GR Corolla Circuit Edition clocked a time half a second slower than that of a manual Hyundai Elantra N. Huh, I guess this thing really is the reincarnation of the Subaru WRX STI.
That being said, short gear ratios make the GR Corolla easy to wind out without going to jail. Oh, and winding it out is espresso-buzz fun indeed. Plant the skinny pedal and Toyota’s unusual three-banger growls like an unusually pissed-off Pomeranian on the way to 7,000 rpm. Dip the clutch, reflect on the sound of a Hot Import Nights-loud pshhh as the turbo blows off steam, snatch a padlock-positive second with a light, deft flick of your fingertips, and start the fun all over again. There’s no rev hang worth noting here, only a characterful engine that does what you want so long as you keep it on the boil.
Eventually, you run out of gears to exploit in a legal manner, and downshifting might just be when this engine and gearbox combo is at its best. The engine’s rotating bits feel positively featherweight, and throttle response is linear enough that after five minutes behind the wheel, you’ll be able to glide down the ‘box in Blundstones like Ayrton Senna in loafers. Sure, you can turn on automatic rev matching, but the truth is, you’d never need to. Oh, and did I mention that we still haven’t reached the interesting part of the car yet?
Unlike most hot hatches, the Toyota GR Corolla is all-wheel-drive, and its makers know that an all-wheel-drive system is only as good as its differentials. Sure, many modern cars with open differentials use stability control to brake a spinning wheel, forcing torque to a new path of least resistance, but it simply doesn’t compare to the consistency, progressiveness, and outright durability of a proper limited-slip differential managing power across an axle. This thing has two. They might be helical units, which don’t work so well when one wheel is in the air, but somehow it’s hard to picture Sean Connery wearing a snapback and tearing ass through Vegas in a Japanese hatchback. Add in reasonably fresh Blizzaks and the ability to manually vary front-to-rear torque split on the fly, and the GR Corolla simply finds grip where it shouldn’t exist, like it keeps an emergency supply of traction in its wallet next to a spare Trojan and a ski pass. Freezing rain? Bring it on.
In the default 60:40 torque split, this hot hatch drives like a Subaru. Corner entry is best approached as if in a front-wheel-drive car, rotation is gradual, and steering inputs on corner exit are small. However, lock into 30:70 party mode, and things get really interesting. On a disgusting mixture of fallen frozen precipitation, the GR Corolla whips off its shirt and waves it around like a helicopter while going completely feral, goading you into proper powerslides and making you feel like you can indeed Gymkhana. You can neutralize understeer with extreme prejudice using just a stab of the accelerator even before the apex, a technique that’s a fever dream in most transverse all-wheel-drive cars, yet still rocket off the corner like it’s damp out, not snowing. There’s no question that this is among the best slippery surface all-wheel-drive systems of all time, right up there with Audi’s Mk1 Quattro with diff locks. It will make you feel like a golden god, so long as you know how to use it.
So, what happens when the snow all melts and you’re left with damp tarmac? Unsurprisingly, the GR Corolla’s prom night clutch on the road tightens, and you get a better sense of what this car is about. Although the steering usually communicates in T9-speak, you’ll certainly know when you’re making the front tires weary and steering weight is absolutely textbook stuff. The firm ride is damped with the utmost bubble-wrapped care, meaning that even the worst roads never result in occupants’ kidneys making eager introductions with their rib cages. Think flat body control without potholes feeling like landmines. The whole chassis package means the Toyota GR Corolla is effervescent in character yet never fatiguing. It’ll play fetch all day, yet still cozy up at your feet when the streetlights come on. Add in anchor-drop brakes with a beautifully progressive pedal and a unibody stiffer than Johnny Sins off a Cialis, and you get a total all-rounder, the whole hot hatch package.
Foibles? Perhaps a few, depending on what your priorities are. There’s a little bit of low-end boom going on, the tiny little boosted three-banger is, as you’d expect, très malcontente if you try to keep engine speed under 2,200 rpm up anything vaguely resembling an incline, and combined fuel economy of 24 MPG (9.8 L/100km) is rather unimpressive for such a small engine. However, the Hyundai Elantra N and Honda Civic Type R get about the same economy, so how much does that last point matter?
So Here We Are
What Toyota’s made here is a four-season valedictorian, an ultimate all-rounder for snow, rain, tarmac, gravel, twisting roads, highway slogs, city bustle, and everything in between. If you’re looking for the precise midpoint between a Hyundai Elantra N and a Volkswagen Golf R, the Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition is it. It’s exciting without being stuck in a permanent kegstand, pragmatic without any chance of being forgettable, and undeniably special. It may cost $43,995 in America and $55,750 in Canada (going up to $46,235 in America and $58,710 in Canada for 2024), but it might just be worth it.
The Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition is nerdy, planted, mischievous, physically and cerebrally fun, and it always gently whispers to you about where it came from. Instead of hitting you over the head with unbridled machismo, it lulls you into thinking that despite the firm ride, strong price tag, and mildly disappointing real-world acceleration, maybe it’s just comfortable enough, just practical enough, and just well-enough equipped that the important people in your life will still like it. Some fiery sport compacts are id on wheels. This one’s designed to be rationalized.
(Photo credits: Thomas Hundal)
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